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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Life's Morning - Chapter 25. A Family Conclave
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A Life's Morning - Chapter 25. A Family Conclave Post by :Orian Category :Long Stories Author :George Gissing Date :May 2012 Read :2651

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A Life's Morning - Chapter 25. A Family Conclave


At eleven o'clock on Wednesday morning Beatrice called at the Athels' house. Receiving the expected information that Wilfrid was not at home, she requested that Mr. Athel senior might not be disturbed and went to Wilfrid's study.

Alone in the room, she took from her hand-bag a little packet addressed to Wilfrid on which she had written the word 'private,' and laid it on the writing-table.

She appeared to have given special attention to her toilet this morning; her attire was that of a lady of fashion, rich, elaborate, devised with consummate art, its luxury draping well the superb form wherein blended with such strange ardour the flames of heroism and voluptuousness. Her moving made the air delicate with faint perfume; her attitude as she laid down the packet and kept her hand upon it for a moment was self-conscious, but nobly so; if an actress, she was cast by nature for the great parts and threw her soul into the playing of them.

She lingered by the table, touching objects with the tips of her gloved fingers, as if lovingly and sadly; at length she seated herself in Wilfrid's chair and gazed about the room with languid, wistful eyes. Her bosom heaved; once or twice a sigh trembled to all but a sob. She lost herself in reverie. Then the clock near her chimed silverly half-past eleven. Beatrice drew a deep breath, rose slowly, and slowly went from the room.

A cab took her to Mrs. Baxendale's. That lady was at home and alone, reading in fact; she closed her book as Beatrice entered, and a placid smile accompanied her observation of her niece's magnificence.

'I was coming to make inquiries,' she said. 'Mrs. Birks gave me a disturbing account of you yesterday. Has your headache gone?'

'Over, all over,' Beatrice replied quietly. 'They make too much of it.'

'I think it is you who make too little of it. You are wretchedly pale.'

'Am I? That will soon go. I think I must leave town before long. Advise me; where shall I go?'

'But you don't think of going before--?'

'Yes, quite soon.'

'You are mysterious,' remarked Mrs. Baxendale, raising her eyebrows a little as she smiled.

'Well, aunt, I will be so no longer. I want to cross-examine you, if you will let me. Do you promise to answer?'

'To the best of my poor ability.'

'Then the first question shall be this,--when did you last hear of Emily Hood?'

'Of Emily Hood?'

Mrs. Baxendale had the habit of controlling the display of her emotions, it was part of her originality. But it was evident that the question occasioned her extreme surprise, and not a little trouble.

'Yes, will you tell me?' said Beatrice, in a tone of calm interest.

'It's a strange question. Still, if you really desire to know, I heard from her about six months ago.'

'She was in London then?'

Mrs. Baxendale had quite ceased to smile. When any puzzling matter occupied her thought she always frowned very low; at present her frown indicated anxiety.

'What reason have you to think she was in London, Beatrice?'

'Only her being here now.'

Beatrice said it with a show of pleasant artfulness, holding her head aside a little and smiling into her aunt's eyes. Mrs. Baxendale relaxed her frown and looked away.

'Have you seen her lately?' Beatrice continued.

'I have not soon her for years.'

'Ah! But you have corresponded with her?'

'At very long intervals.'

Before Beatrice spoke again, her aunt resumed.

'Don't lay traps for me, my dear. Suppose you explain at once your interest in Emily Hood's whereabouts.'

'Yes, I wish to do so. I have come to you to talk about it, aunt, because I know you take things quietly, and just now I want a little help of the kind you can give. You have guessed, of course, what I am going to tell you,--part of it at least. Wilfrid and she have met.'

'They have met,' repeated the other, musingly, her face still rather anxious. 'In what way?'

'By chance, pure chance.'

'By chance? It was not, I suppose, by chance that you heard of the meeting?'

'No. Wilfrid told me of it. He told me on Sunday--'

Her voice was a little uncertain.

'Give me your hand, dear,' said Mrs. Baxendale. 'There, now tell me the rest.'

Beatrice half sobbed.

'Yes, I can now more easily,' she continued, with hurried utterance. 'Your hand is just what I wanted; it is help, dear help. But you mustn't think I am weak; I could have stood alone. Yes, he told me on Sunday. And that of course was the end.'

'At his desire?'

'His and mine. He was honest with me. It was better than such discoveries when it would have been too late.'

'And he is going to marry her?'

'They were married an hour ago.'

Mrs. Baxendale looked with grave inquiry into Beatrice's face. Incredulity was checked by what she saw there. She averted her eyes again, and both were silent for awhile.

'So it is all well over, you see,' Beatrice said at length, trying at light-heartedness.

'Over, it seems. As to the well or ill, I can't say.'

'Surely well,' rejoined Beatrice. 'He loves her, and he would never have loved me. We can't help it. She has suffered dreadful things; you see it in her face.'

'Her face?'

'I went to see her on Monday evening,' Beatrice explained, with simplicity, though her lips quivered. 'I asked leave of Wilfrid to do so; he had told me all her story, as be had just heard it from herself, and I--indeed I was curious to see her again. Then there was another reason. If I saw her and brought her to believe that Wilfrid and I were merely intimate friends, as we used to be--how much easier it would make everything. You understand me, aunt?'

Mrs. Baxendale was again looking at her with grave, searching eyes, eyes which began to glimmer a little when the light caught them. Beatrice's hand she held pressed more and more closely in both her own. She made no reply to the last question, and the speaker went on with a voice which lost its clearness, and seemed to come between parched lips.

'You see how easy that makes everything? I want your help, of course; I told Wilfrid that this was how I should act. It is very simple; let us say that I prefer to be thought an unselfish woman: anyone can be jealous and malicious. You are to think that I care as little as it would seem; I don't yet know how I am to live, but of course I shall, it will come in time. It was better they should be married in this way. Then he must come back after the holidays, and everything be smooth for him. That will be our work, yours and mine, dear aunt. You understand me? You will talk to Mrs. Birks; it will be better from you; and then Mr. Athel shall be told. Yes, it is hard for me, but perhaps not quite in the way you think. I don't hate her, indeed I don't. If you knew that story, which you never can I No, I don't hate her. I kissed her, aunt, with my lips--indeed. She couldn't find me out; I acted too well for that. But I couldn't have done it if I had hated her. She is so altered from what she was. You know that I liked her years ago. She interested me in a strange, strange way; it seems to me now that I foresaw how her fate would be connected with mine. I knew that Wilfrid loved her before anyone else had dreamt of such a thing. Now promise your help.'

'Have they gone away?' her aunt asked.

'I don't know. It is likely.'

Her face went white to the lips; for a moment she quivered.

'Beatrice, stay with me,' said Mrs. Baxendale. 'Stay 'with me here for a day or two.'

'Willingly. I wished it. Mrs. Birks is all kindness, but I find it hard to talk, and she won't let me be by myself. Don't think I am ill--no, indeed no! It's only rest that I want. It seems a long time since Sunday. But you haven't yet promised me, aunt. It will be much harder if I have to do everything myself. I promised him that everything should be made smooth. I want to show him that my--that my love was worth having. It's more than all women would do, isn't it, aunt? Of course it isn't only that; there's the pleasure of doing something for him. And he cannot help being grateful to me as long as he lives. Suppose I had gone and told her She would never have married him. She was never beautiful, you know, and now her face is dreadfully worn, but I think I understand why he loves her. Of course you cannot know her as well as I do. And you will help me, aunt?'

'Are you perfectly sure that they have been married this morning?' Mrs. Baxendale asked, with quiet earnestness.

'Sure, quite sure.'

'In any other case I don't know whether I should have done as you wish.'

'You would have tried to prevent it? Oh no, you are too wise! After all this time, and he loves her as much as ever. Don't you see how foolish it would be to fret about it? It is fete, that's all. You know we all have our fate. Do you know what I used to think mine would he? I feared madness; my poor father--But I shall not fear that now; I have gone through too much; my mind has borne it. But I must have rest, and I can only rest if I know that you are helping me. You promise?'

'I will do my best, dear.'

'And your best is best indeed, aunt. You will go to Mrs. Birks and tell her where I am? The sooner you speak to her the better. I will lie down. If you knew how worn-out I feel!'

She rose, but stood with difficulty. Mrs. Baxendale put her arm about her and kissed her cheek. Then she led her to another room.

Tension in Beatrice was nearing the point of fever. She had begun the conversation with every appearance of calmness; now she was only to be satisfied by immediate action towards the end she had in view, every successive minute of delay was an added torment. She pressed her aunt to go to Mrs. Birks forthwith; that alone could soothe her. Mrs. Baxendale yielded and set out.

But it was not to Mrs. Birks that she paid her first visit. Though it was clear that Beatrice firmly believed all she said, Mrs. Baxendale could not accept this as positive assurance; before taking upon herself to announce such a piece of news she felt the need of some further testimony. She had a difficulty in reconciling precipitate action of this kind with Wilfrid's character as it had of late years developed itself; political, even social, ambition had become so pronounced in him that it was difficult to imagine him turning with such sudden vehemence from the path in which every consideration of interest would tend to hold him. The best of women worship success, and though Mrs. Baxendale well knew that Wilfrid's aims had suffered a degradation, she could not, even apart from her feeling for Beatrice, welcome his return to the high allegiance of former days, when it would surely check or altogether terminate a brilliant career. The situation had too fantastic a look. Could it be that Beatrice was suffering from some delusion? Had a chance discovery of Emily Hood's proximity, together perhaps with some ambiguous behaviour on Wilfrid's part, affected her mind? It was an extreme supposition, but on the whole as easy of acceptance as the story Beatrice had poured forth.

In pursuit of evidence Mrs. Baxendale drove to the Athels'. It was about luncheon-time. She inquired for Wilfrid, and heard with mingled feelings that he was at home. She found him in his study; he had before him a little heap of letters, the contents of a packet he had found on his table on entering a quarter of an hour before.

Mrs. Baxendale regarded him observantly. The results of her examination led her to come to the point at once.

'I have just left Beatrice,' she said. 'She has been telling me an extraordinary story. Do you know what it was?'

'She has told you the truth,' Wilfrid replied, simply.

'And you were married this morning?'

Wilfrid bent his head in assent.

Mrs. Baxendale seated herself.

'My dear Wilfrid,' were her next words, 'you have been guilty of what is commonly called a dishonourable action.'

'I fear I have. I can only excuse myself by begging you to believe that no other course was open to me. I have simply cut a hard knot. It was better than wasting my own life and others' lives in despair at its hopelessness.'

Wilfrid was collected. The leap taken, he felt his foot once more on firm ground. He felt, too, that he had left behind him much of which he was heartily ashamed. He was in no mood to feign an aspect of contrition.

'You will admit,' observed the lady, 'that this Cutting of the knot makes a rather harsh severance.'

'It would be impertinent to say that I am sorry for Beatrice. Her behaviour to me has been incredibly magnanimous, and I feel sure that her happiness as well as my own has been consulted. I don't know in what sense she has spoken to you--'

'Very nobly, be sure of it.'

'I can only thank her and reverence her.'

Mrs. Baxendale remained for a moment in thought.

'Well,' she resumed, 'you know that it is not my part to make useless scenes. I began with my hardest words, and they must stand. Beatrice will not die of a broken heart, happily, and if your wife is one half as noble you are indeed a fortunate man. Perhaps we had better talk no more at present; it is possible you have acted rightly, and I must run no risk of saying unkind things. Is your father informed?'

'Not yet.'

'You are leaving town?'

'This afternoon.'

'To go to a distance?'

'No. I shall be in town daily.'

'You doubtless inform your father before you leave?'

'I shall do so.'

'Then we will say good-bye.'

Mrs. Baxendale gave her hand. She did not smile, but just shook her head as she looked Wilfrid steadily in the face.

It was later in the afternoon when she called upon Mrs. Birks. She was conducted to that lady's boudoir, and there found Mr. Athel senior in colloquy with his sister. The subject of the conversation was unmistakable.

'You know?' asked Mrs. Birks, with resignation, as soon as the door was closed behind the visitor.

'I have come to talk it over with you.'

Mr. Athel was standing with his hands clasped behind him; he was rather redder in the face than usual, and had clearly been delivering himself of ample periods.

'Really, Mrs. Baxendale,' he began, 'I have a difficulty in expressing myself on the subject. The affair is simply monstrous. It indicates a form of insanity. I--uh--I--uh--in truth I don't know from what point to look at it.'

'Where is Beatrice?' Mrs. Birks asked.

'She will stay with me for a day or two,' replied Mrs. Baxendale.

'How--how is she?' inquired Mr. Athel, sympathetically.

'Upset, of course, but not seriously, I hope.'

'Really,' Mrs. Birks exclaimed, 'Wilfrid might have had some consideration for other people. Hero are the friendships of a lifetime broken up on his account.'

'I don't know that that is exactly the point of view,' remarked her brother, judicially. 'One doesn't expect such things to seriously weigh--I mean, of course, when there is reason on the man's side. What distresses me is the personal recklessness of the step.'

'Perhaps that is not so great as it appears,' put in Mrs. Baxendale, quietly.

'You defend him?' exclaimed Mrs. Birks.

'I'm not sure that I should do so, but I want to explain how Beatrice regards it.'

'_She defends him?' cried Mr. Athel.

'Yes, she does. At present there is only one thing I fear for her, and that is a refusal on your part to carry out her wishes. Beatrice has made up her mind that as little trouble as possible shall result. I bring, in fact, the most urgent request from her that you, Mr. Athel, and you, Mrs. Birks, will join in a sort of conspiracy to make things smooth for Wilfrid. She desires--it is no mere whim, I believe her health depends upon it--that no obstacle whatever may be put in the way of Wilfrid's return to society with his wife. We are to act as though this old engagement had come to an end by mutual agreement, and as approving the marriage. This is my niece's serious desire.'

'My dear Mrs. Baxendale!' murmured the listening lady. 'How very extraordinary! Are you quite sure--'

'Oh, this surely is out of the question,' broke in her brother. 'That Beatrice should make such a request is very admirable, but I--uh--I really--'

Mr. Athel paused, as if expecting and hoping that someone would defeat his objections.

'I admit it sounds rather unreal,' pursued Mrs. Baxendale, 'but fortunately I can give you good evidence of her sincerity. She has visited the lady who is now Mrs. Athel, and that with the express purpose of representing herself as nothing more than a friend of Wilfrid's. You remember she had a slight acquaintance with Miss Hood. After this I don't see how we can refuse to aid her plan.'

'She visited Miss Hood?' asked Mrs. Birks, with the mild amazement of a lady who respects her emotions. 'Does Wilfrid know that?'

'Beatrice asked his permission to go.'

'This is altogether beyond me,' confessed Mr. Athel, drawing down his waistcoat and taking a turn across the room. Of course, if they have been amusing themselves with a kind of game, well, we have nothing to do but to regret that our invitation to join in it has come rather late. For my own part, I was disposed to take a somewhat more serious view. Of course it's no good throwing away one's indignation. I--uh--but what is your own attitude with regard to this proposal, Mrs. Baxendale?'

'I think I must be content to do my niece's bidding,' said the lady addressed.

'There's one thing, it seems to me, being lost sight of,' came from Mrs. Birks, in the disinterested tone of a person who wishes to deliver with all clearness an unpleasant suggestion. 'We are very much in the dark as to Miss Hood's--I should say Mrs. Athel's--antecedents. You yourself,' she regarded Mrs. Baxendale, 'confess that her story is very mysterious. If we are asked to receive her, really--doesn't this occur to you?'

At this moment the door opened and amid general silence Beatrice came forward. Mrs. Birks rose quickly and met her. Mrs. Baxendale understood at a glance what had brought her niece here. Agitation had grown insupportable. It was not in Beatrice's character to lie still whilst others decided matters in which she had supreme interest. The more difficult her position the stronger she found herself to support it. The culmination of the drama could not be acted with her behind the scenes.

Mrs. Birks, with a whispered word or two, led her to a seat. Beatrice looked at her aunt, then at Mr. Athel. The proud beauty of her face was never more impressive. She smiled as if some pleasant trifle were under discussion.

'I heard your voice as I came in,' she said to Mrs. Birks, bending towards her gracefully. 'Were you on my side?'

'I'm afraid not, dear, just then,' was the reply, given in a corresponding tone of affectionateness.

'You will tell me what you were saying?'

Mr. Athel looked as uncomfortable as even an English gentleman can in such a situation. Mrs. Baxendale seemed to be finding amusement in observing him. The lady appealed to plucked for a moment at her sleeve.

'May I make a guess?' Beatrice pursued. 'It had something to do with the private circumstances of the lady Mr. Wilfrid Athel has married?'

'Yes, Beatrice, it had.'

'Then let me help you over that obstacle, dear Mrs. Birks. I have heard from herself a full explanation of what you are uneasy about, and if I were at liberty to repeat it you would know that she has been dreadfully unhappy and has endured things which would have killed most women, all because of her loyalty and purity of heart. I think I may ask you to give as much effect to my words as if you knew everything. Mrs. Athel is in every respect worthy to become a member of your family.'

Her voice began to express emotion,

'Mr. Athel, _you are not against me? It is so hard to find no sympathy. I have set my heart on this. Perhaps I seem to ask a great deal, but I--have I not some little--'

'My dear Miss Redwing,' broke in Mr. Athel then, correcting himself, 'My dear Beatrice, no words could convey the anxiety I feel to be of service to you. You see how difficult it is for me to speak decidedly, but I assure you that I could not possibly act in opposition to your expressed desire. Perhaps it would be better for me to withdraw. I am sure these ladies--'

His speech hung in mid-air, and he stood nervously tapping his fingers with his eyeglass.

'No, please remain,' exclaimed Beatrice. 'Aunt, you are not against me? Mrs. Birks, you won't refuse to believe what I have told you?'

The two ladies glanced at each other. In Mrs. Baxendale's look there was appeal.

'Indeed, I believe you implicitly, my dear Beatrice,' said Mrs. Birks. 'My brother is the one to decide. You are mistaken in thinking I oppose your wish. How could I?'

The last words were very sweetly said. With a smile which did not pass beyond her lips, Beatrice rose from her seat and held her hand to Mr. Athel.

'Then it is understood? When Wilfrid brings his wife to you, you receive her with all kindness. I have your promise?'

Mr. Athel drew himself up very straight, pressed the offered hand and said:

'It shall be as you wish.' ...

Beatrice returned with Mrs. Baxendale. Her desire to be alone was respected during the rest of the day. Going to her the last thing at night, her aunt was reassured; weariness had followed upon nervous strain, and the beautiful eyes seemed longing for sleep.

But in the morning appearances were not so hopeful. The night had after all been a troubled one: Beatrice declined breakfast and, having dressed with effort, lay on a sofa, her eyes closed.

At noon Mrs. Baxendale came near and said gently:

'Dear, you are not going to be ill?'

The sufferer stirred a little, looked in her aunt's face, rose to a sitting position.

'Ill?' She laughed in a forced way. 'O, that would never do! Ill after all? Why, that would spoil everything. Are you going out this morning?'

'Certainly not. I should only have done some idle shopping.'

'Then you shall do the shopping, and I will go with you. Yes, yes, I will go! It is the only way. Let us go where we shall see people; I wish to. I will be ready in five minutes.'

'But, Beatrice--.'

'O, don't fear my looks; you shall see if I betray myself! Quick, quick,--to Regent Street, Bond Street, where we shall gee people! I shall be ready before you.'

They set forth, and Beatrice had no illness.

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